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'Mad Immensities of Night'
The Nocturnal Element and Insanity in Heroic Fiction
Night is perhaps the most oft used setting for horror stories—certainly for ghost stories. Entire categories of horrors only emerge at night, Vampires and werewolves among them. Most notable is the vampire, for whom day light runs from debilitating to deadly. This reader prefers the Bram Stoker vampire, which may live in daylight, but prefers the gloom and thrives in the night.
Night has such portent in the human psyche because it is the hunting element of those beasts which most specialized—and continue to specialize—in the hunting of men, the leopard, sometimes referred to as a panther. It may be that we owe the fossil record—at least the cranial record—of our earliest ancestors to the intercession of this hunting beast, which dined upon early man in secluded locations.
This secluded dining area, the lair, is also a fixture of the mythic monstrosities of legend, fairytale and even science-fiction and modern crime. It is no accident that the hyper-masculine protagonists of Robert E. Howard’s fiction were so often depicted as resembling and moving like leopards, panthers, tigers and lions, all nocturnal beasts, or beasts that prefer the night, with the tiger being his most laudatory warrior metaphor and the leopard generally serving as a more villainous indicator of lethal potential in a character. When a hero is referred to in such terms he is being depicted as the Odysseus-like character that can journey into Hell and back again, where most are consumed by it, who can navigate the night where most become lost.
The horrific theme that Howard traffics in so consistently is similar to that of H.P. Lovecraft, namely the threat of insanity, with the difference being that the Lovecraftian threat is one of comprehension and the Howardian threat is more often direct in terms of the pantherish or tigerish hero. However, in the lives of Howard’s frequent female viewpoint characters in the Conan stories, he seems to have bridged that gap between the two presentations, with the horror of comprehension or alternately overpowering incomprehension, being appreciated through the female co-protagonist after the Lovecraftian fashion, while, at the same time, maintaining the heroic confrontation with abysmal horror through the Conan character.
What follows is a poem by Howard which was first published in Weird Tales, September 1932
“Behind the Veil what gulfs of Time and Space?
What blinking mowing Shapes to blast the sight?
I shrink before a vague colossal Face
Born in the mad immensities of Night.”
Of interest, in relation to this verse, is the following passage from a work of mine in which I used a journal entry from historical hero, Richard Francis Burton, to flesh out his character with the type of dream that has sometimes been known to haunt exceptionally powerful men, when night overtakes them and they come to psychological grips with the immensity of their living stage upon which they strive like an insect:
“There he was, abandoned by his nurse to the horrors of the big black bedroom. Then it arose from the shallows of the deeper darkness, the black phantom of his baby-fears. The darkness was within, for his eyes were closed and he did not look upon any physical manifestation.
“An immense cone lay before his closed eyes, from the apex of which rose a huge grinning face, advancing toward him from the unfathomable inner distance. It came on gradually but unavoidably.
No, no, standoff, you terror! Mister Gilchrist, it is upon me—help!
“But on it came, the disembodied head of some damned pagan magician, whose body had been consigned to the flames, but his head spared to haunt the still living. He struggled within his tiny child’s body to squirm away from the encroaching horror.
“But on it came…
“Soon its monstrous subhuman features and deep penetrating eyes were so close that he could feel their negative energy with every pore and whisker that covered his own helpless, immoveable face.
“…Then, abruptly, and without warning, as was always the case for this particular terror the monstrous face started back to the apex of the cone, receding from his inner sight to a deeper quarter than it had emerged, until only the dark eyes were left bobbing in the abyss, waiting as always, to return and haunt him unless he pulled himself away from the black bedroom of boyhood…
“…From the swirling mists of the shallows of night, he awoke swaying in his hammock”
In modern fiction, heroes are rarely beset by nightmares as it is unseemly. But in the works of Lovecraft the protagonists are adrift on a nightmare sea, and even Howard’s arrogant heroes stride through nightmare realms of madness and are so informed in their dreams. Most notable, Howard’s most physically strong character, Conan and most psychologically strong hero, Kane, gather much knowledge about the nature of the horrors they face within their dream-space, as they slumber, yet are awakened to the mythic dimension.
It is useful for the writer to recall, now and again, that the nightmares of the primal hero should be as outsized as the dreams of the modern lottery player.
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Add Comment
guestMay 12, 2016 8:00 PM UTC

The Hour of the Dragon

Author: Robert E. Howard

A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook
deuceMay 12, 2016 3:00 PM UTC

The episode in QotBC was more of an involuntary, drug-induced vision.

Yes, HotD is excellent. It follows Campbell's "Hero's Journey" a full decade before JC put it in print.
deuceMay 12, 2016 12:45 PM UTC

Conan, in The Hour of the Dragon, admits to experiencing nightmares from time to time.
responds:May 12, 2016 2:06 PM UTC

Hour of the Dragon is such an underrated novel. When I think of Conan and dream messages Queen of the Black Coast comes to mind. Even though the experience for him does not seem a nightmare, it informs him of evil